Best Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett, edited by Waugh, Greenberg & Donovan

What terrific stories! As Josephine Donovan points out in her introduction, Jewett is the bridge between the American “local color” writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Rose Terry, and the European realists, such as Flaubert, Tolstoy, Sterne and George Sand. Inspired by Stowe’s novel, The Pearl of Orr’s Island, Jewett sets her own stories in her native Maine, realistically capturing the flavor of life in the rural areas and small towns.

Many of these stories feature characters who are intensely individual, this from a time when towns and farms were more isolated. As Storm Jameson says of her own native Whitby, “Isolation . . . bred, in counterweight to its benefits, a crop of eccentrics, harmless fools, misers, house devils, despots, male and some female . . .” Jewett explores these folks in seemingly simple stories that pack a huge emotional punch. Most of the stories feature women and explore issues of power and powerlessness. “The Flight of Betsey Lane” describes three women in the local poor-house, many of whose residents only come there for the winter months: “far from lamenting the fact that they were town charges, they rather liked the change and excitement of a winter residence on the poor-farm.” The story captures the shifting currents of friendship between the three, their tolerance of each other’s eccentricities, their care for each other, their secrets.

In “Going to Shrewsbury”, the narrator meets up with an elderly countrywoman taking her first-ever train journey. Mrs. Peet has been tricked out of the small farm where she and her now-deceased husband had scraped a living for forty-five years and is on her way to live with a niece who doesn’t seem eager to have her. The mix of emotions—sadness, excitement, loneliness—struck me as genuine, reminding me of elderly parents of a friend who recently moved here, far from their friends and former life, in order to spend their last years near their children. At one point, Mrs. Peet says, ” ‘It may divert me, but it won’t be home. You might as well set out one o’ my old apple-trees on the beach, so ‘t could see the waves come in . . .'”

One area where Jewett excels is capturing the rhythms of speech without the excessive use of dialect that can be so annoying. She characterises her people not just through their speech and actions, but by how others in their small communities react to them and by small details of their clothing, habits, or homes. For example, “The Only Rose” begins “Just where the village abruptly ended, and the green mowing fields began, stood Mrs. Bickford’s house, looking down the road with all its windows, and topped by two prim chimneys that stood up like ears.”

Other stories are more meditative, even lyrical, descriptions of the place. Jewett’s familiarity with native plants and appreciation of nature inform stories like “An Autumn Holiday” and “A Bit of Shore Life”. These are also examples of the “village sketch” format developed by Mary Russell Mitford, where a narrator wanders through her village describing birds and plants and conversing with the unconventional people she meets. Perhaps the most famous story here is “A White Heron” in which a young girl is torn between devotion to the bird and a desire to help the young man who wants to shoot and stuff it to add to his collection.

As it happens, I had never read anything by this well-known author of the late 19th century, not even her most famous book, The Country of the Pointed Firs. I came across her name again last year when I was reading Willa Cather, for Jewett was a mentor for Cather and was much appreciated by the younger writer who named The Country of the Pointed Firs one of the three works of American literature that would be classics, the others being Huckleberry Finn and The Scarlet Letter.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the influence of place on writers, even as our places become more homogenized. Jewett’s writing has the grit and get-on-with-it nature of Maine’s rocky, stubborn land. Her work has the stripped-down barrenness of Maine’s long snowbound winter, the darkness of its lonely woods, and the astringent sweetness of its spring. I recommend these stories and will be looking for more of her work.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

This fascinating book has found a well-deserved place on many Best-of-2010 lists. In compelling prose, Skloot tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman from rural Virginia, who died of cancer in 1951 in Johns Hopkins Hospital. Cells harvested from her tumor, in accordance with the standard practice of the time, became the first cells that could be grown in a laboratory, a huge advance for medicine because they enabled researchers to run tests in laboratories instead of on live people. HeLa cells, named for Henrietta Lacks, are today used in laboratories around the world and have led to such benefits as the vaccine for polio, a better understanding of cancer, in vitro fertilization, and gene mapping. Just before her death, Henrietta was told that her cells would help save lives and she said that “‘she was glad her pain would come to some good for someone.'”

Yet Henrietta’s family knew nothing of the continued existence of her cells nor of the contributions to society they enabled. Scientists from Hopkins contacted them occasionally over the years, partly in order to see if other family members could provide cells with similar benefits, but the Lacks family could not follow the technical discussion, thinking instead that they were being tested for cancer and baffled when no one at Hopkins could give them their test results.

The medical profession and hospitals are mistrusted by much of the black community, and no wonder considering such abuses as the Tuskegee syphilis study. Yet, Hopkins was founded with the intention of providing medical care to all, regardless of ability to pay, and, indeed, Henrietta was treated for free. Hopkins has not made any money from Henrietta’s cells. Rather, they gave them to labs which have made a lot of money over the years growing and selling HeLa cells to meet the huge demand in the medical community. Meanwhile the Lacks family have lived in poverty, often without health insurance themselves, receiving neither recognition or compensation for Henrietta’s contribution.

Should they have? Skloot explores this and other complicated ethical issues in this fascinating book, while giving us the story of Henrietta’s life and the subsequent lives of her family. Skloot relates the convoluted progress of her attempts to contact the family and her eventual partnership with Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah. Together they uncovered Henrietta’s story, sharing their different pieces of that story.

Full disclosure: I heard Rebecca speak and met her briefly at one of Lee Gutkind’s Creative Nonfiction Conferences at Goucher College. I had gone looking for anything that would help me figure out how to write my memoir (which is coming out later this year from Apprentice House). I found help in abundance and also a deeper understanding of this relatively new genre of creative nonfiction, i.e., applying the techniques of fiction (e.g., narrative, description, dialogue) to nonfiction. This well-written book is an excellent example of the genre, being as exciting and as readable as any novel, while managing to inform at the same time.

I also attended the first annual Henrietta Lacks Memorial Lecture at Johns Hopkins, a gracious if belated expression of the huge debt owed to this woman. Hopkins went all out, providing a background on the science involved, a presentation on the history of HeLa cells, announcing scholarships in Henrietta’s name, and inviting her family, many of whom were present, to speak. The Hopkins representatives welcomed questions and took their hits fairly, discussing the pros and cons of the issues involved. Rebecca herself spoke and read from the book, the moving passage when Deborah first holds her mother’s cells.

My book club was lucky enough to have Henrietta’s granddaughter, Jeri, attend our meeting. She passed around articles about Henrietta and patiently answered our questions. Publicity is not always welcome, but Jeri said that the younger generation is grateful for the knowledge of their family history that has been pieced together and documented by Rebecca and others. She also noted that the book expresses Deborah's point of view, which is not necessarily shared by other members of the family. This was especially interesting to me because, in writing my memoir, I struggled a lot with the issues around telling someone else's story.

Rebecca Skloot has started a nonprofit foundation in honor of Henrietta Lacks, which “strives to provide financial assistance to needy individuals who have made important contributions to scientific research without their knowledge or consent. The Foundation gives those who have benefited from biological contributions — including scientists, universities, corporations, and the general public — a way to show their appreciation to individuals like Henrietta Lacks for their contributions to science.” Recent grants have gone toward education and health care for the Lacks family. Donations may be made at

Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls

Second books can be terrifying for the writer and a disappointment for the reader. The author usually cannot devote to a second book the long years of revising and polishing that went into selling the first book. And if that first book was a huge success, as was Walls's The Glass Castle, then the author carries the burden of expectations and is hampered by the fear of not being able to live up to them. A memoir of her childhood, The Glass Castle was one of the very best of all the many memoirs I read that year. In fascinated horror I read on as Walls was tossed here and there at the whim of her feckless (if fun) parents, certainly neglected by today's standards, often starved enough to steal food from the school trashcans, but still fondly appreciative of her father's quirky ideas.

Half Broke Horses, Walls's second book, is a fictional treatment of her grandmother's life, based on family stories and supplemental research. Growing up on ranches in Texas and New Mexico during the Dust Bowl years, Lily endured hardships that she perceived as privileges, such as living in a mud house that was cool in summer and warm in winter, though sometimes unstable in the rare heavy rains. As the oldest of three, she acted as her father's best hand, breaking the horses he then trained as carriage horses, gelding the male horses, selling eggs in town, and bargaining with the shopkeepers.

Walls does an excellent job of capturing the voice of this idiosyncratic woman and maintaining it throughout the book. While the book lacks the intensity of the earlier memoir, I cherished the opportunity to spend time with the practical and philosophic Lily. She takes every setback as a lesson to be learned and is harder on herself than anyone.

An all-too-brief year at boarding school instills in her a lifelong love of learning, which she pursues in fits and starts, whenever time and money can be spared from ranch life. Tough as she is, there is no doubt from her actions how much she loves her two children, Rosemary (who would be Jeannette’s mother) and Little Jim. I also appreciated the chance to learn more about Rosemary’s early life, which puts some of her later, seemingly bizarre parental behavior into some kind of context.

In spite of her lack of credentials, Lily works as a teacher when she can, though she continually gets into trouble with the authorities for teaching children what she thinks they should know. She also loves flying, though she can rarely afford the lessons, and enjoys watching the westerns that her husband, Big Jim, despises. While agreeing that the cowboys are unrealistic with their spotless ten-gallon hats and spirited sing-songs around the campfire after a long day on the trail, she argues that no one would want to see stories of real cowboys.

Maybe not in the movies, but I sure enjoyed these stories of real life in the West. Lily embodies not only the independence we associate with the West, living her life in a way that is orthogonal to American society, but also the can-do spirit and work ethic necessary to survive in a place where you only have yourself to rely on. Lily is the kind of woman I always wanted to be and I’m tremendously grateful for this chance to get to know her.

Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China, by Paul Theroux

There have been a spate of articles, including a report from the U.S. National Intelligence Council, Global Trends 2025, predicting that the U.S.‘s reign as a global superpower will be over by 2025 or sooner. The reasons are the usual suspects, succinctly summarized by Alfred McCoy in an article in Salon: “Today, three main threats exist to America’s dominant position in the global economy: loss of economic clout thanks to a shrinking share of world trade, the decline of American technological innovation, and the end of the dollar's privileged status as the global reserve currency.” The trade deficit drives the first threat, along with the movement of production overseas. The poorly ranked U.S. educational system is not turning out the scientists and mathematicians necessary to continue our role in technological innovation. McCoy says: “The World Economic Forum ranked the United States at a mediocre 52nd among 139 nations in the quality of its university math and science instruction in 2010.” The third threat is due to the lack of confidence in the U.S. economy, not just because of the recent banking crisis, but also because of the huge national debt which exploded during the Bush/Cheney regime. A large portion of that debt is held by China, which along with India, Russia and Brazil are overtaking or surpassing the U.S. in key economic areas. In addition, McCoy points out that the U.S.‘s declining economy has already decreased the country's ability to control global oil supplies, which will exacerbate the coming energy crisis.

With these predictions in mind, I turned to this 1988 account of Theroux’s travels in China. A reliably excellent writer, Theroux describes the places he goes, the trains he uses to get there, and the people he meets in brief anecdotes, so that reading the book is like listening to a most entertaining dinner guest. He does not hide his own bad behavior, such as asking politically sensitive questions of people who do not want to answer; refusing to use anything but the old versions of city names such as Peking, Canton, Shanghai; and giving out forbidden portraits of the Dalai Lama in Tibet.

Theroux does not paint an attractive picture of Chinese life. Heating and lighting are luxuries. In Manchuria they don’t wash because they don’t have hot water or bathrooms, and the houses are kept so cold that they wear coats and hats even inside. Toilets in the trains are holes in the floor. People spit all the time and everywhere, inside and out, leaning forward to dribble it onto the floor or ground and then wiping at it with their feet. The Chinese have much catching up to do with the modern world: the trains, even the new ones, are steam locomotives.

Of course the book is outdated, but the poverty of the people is shocking nonetheless. There are just too many of them, and they use every inch of space for living or growing food. Forests and wild animals are wiped out, songbirds shot for their scrap of meat, and mountains made into terraced gardens and caves into homes. Of Gansu, Theroux says, “. . . everything visible in this landscape was man-made.” Outside Shanghai, they use human excrement as fertilizer. “It was all used. Farm yields were high, but the place epitomized drudgery. Everyone’s energy was expended on simply existing there, and every inch of land had been put to use. Why grow flowers when you can grow spinach? Why plant a tree when you can use the sunshine on your crop?” People live in caves and those too poor to own oxen pull the plows themselves. Theroux observes that “If there were enough of you, it was really very easy to dig up a continent and plant cabbages.”

Much of his conversation with people centers around trying to measure the extent of the then-new capitalism and the attitudes toward the recent past. He finds everyone intent of making money and trying to repair the ravages of the Cultural Revolution. They are starting businesses, rebuilding monasteries to attract tourists, converting communes into more profitable cooperatives. He finds few with a good word to say for their previously revered leader, and when he visits Mao’s birthplace, it is deserted and the gift shop no longer carries Mao’s picture, his badge, or his little red book. Still, people are surprisingly forgiving, or perhaps they deliberately set aside the abuses and cruelty of that time. Theroux asks one man if he is bitter. The man replies, “‘No . . . They were young. They didn’t know anything.'”

Although the government repression we hear so much about is omnipresent—people don’t believe the government radio broadcasts and refuse to speculate about possible political changes over which they have no control—Theroux again and again finds an optimistic spirit: children playing in the snow, ice sculptures in Harbin with fluorescent tubes frozen inside, a manager bragging about the productivity of his cooperative and plans for future expansion. For the Chinese, every train journey is a big pajama party, though it means leaving the car trashed after even the shortest journey.

McCoy’s article scared me, not because I hadn’t already pieced together those same threats that will reduce the U.S. to a second-class country, but because I hadn’t thought about how quickly it can occur or what might happen afterwards. When the British empire faded, it was replaced by the U.S. empire: a soft landing indeed due to the similarity between the two cultures. We will not be so lucky. How much of Theroux’s picture of Chinese life is our future? It is not a comfortable thought.

Best books I read in 2010

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. These are the ten best books I read in 2010. If I blogged about the book then I’ve noted the date, so please check the archive for a fuller discussion of the book.

1. The Winter Vault, by Anne Michaels
19 Jul 2010
A poet with three poetry collections out, Michaels brings a deeply sensuous language with layers of thought and imagery to this story of a young married couple, Avery and Jean, who are living on a houseboat on the Nile while Avery works on a high-profile engineering project. It is 1964 and the flooding of the desert at Abu Simbel due to construction of the Aswan dam threatens the great tombs of Ramses and Nefertari, with their towering stone figures. In beautiful prose, each word carefully considered and placed, Michaels leads us backwards and forwards in time, building up resonances around what it means to flood this huge area.

2. Away, by Jane Urquhart
8 Nov 2010
An old woman now, Esther relives once more the sequence of stories that her Great-Aunt Eileen told her long ago, starting with the tale of Mary, Eileen's mother, who in 1842 stumbles upon a shipwrecked sailor on the storm-strewn beach of Rathlin, a small island off the northern coast of Ireland. Urquhart’s prose sings with poetry, not just the songs the women in this story compose and sing in their altered states, but everyday sentences imbued with a bardic lilt that makes me hold my breath and listen.

3. House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton
16 Aug 2010
The scene is New York in the 1890s. Lily Bart, one of the most intriguing characters in all of literature, lives with the aunt who took her in after her mother's death. With only a tiny income of her own, Lily is dependent on her aunt's occasional gifts and on the generosity of her friends, who invite her to house parties, concerts, and dinners. She knows she must marry money if she wants to regain her footing in the affluent world where she and her parents lived before her father's untimely death, but she has a streak of independence and the ability (or curse) to view her social world from the outside with a sardonic eye.

4. A Mercy, by Toni Morrison
8 Mar 2010
Sixteen-year-old Florens relates her story of the plantation where she is a slave. The time is the 1680s and 1690s, a period when slavery is just beginning to be enshrined in law and custom. Throughout the book, using methods both subtle and apparent, Morrison examines how slavery—how dominion over another person—affects both the owned and the owners. Orphaned, lost, given away, all of these characters struggle with their sense of abandonment as they try to become their own selves within the constraints that cage them. Reading this novel was like falling into a dream for me.

5. The Surrendered, by Chang-Rae Lee
22 Nov 2010
Another of my favorite authors, Lee writes about silent and detached men, left isolated by their disconnection from their past. In this, his most recent and most harrowing book, Lee gives us three characters who draw us deeply into their lives, their hurts and small triumphs, their pasts.

6. The Wayfarer (Kojin), by Natsume Soseki
22 Mar 2010
Although this novel starts off with young Jiro, who is on his way to Osaka to meet a friend with whom he plans to spend a vacation climbing Mt. Koya, the story is really about Jiro’s brother Ichiro. Suffering from a kind of existential crisis, Ichiro’s marriage to Nao is in trouble. The book is infused with Soseki’s persistent theme of the anguish associated with the shift from Japan’s feudal past to a modern society. Thus, both Ichiro and Nao try to find space for their independent concerns within the restrictions of their arranged marriage and the world of Ichiro’s conservative parents. Ichiro and Nao strive to become, as we would say today, self-actualised, caught between the formalised order of the past—church, state and family—and the new individualism, rejecting prescribed solutions.

7. My Dream of You, by Nuala O'Faolain
25 Oct 2010
O'Faolain is the author of the well-regarded memoir, Are You Somebody? Her prose is gorgeous, absorbing. I can't remember when I last lost myself in a novel as I did in this one. Kathleen de Burca is a middle-aged travel writer based in London who, when not scouring the world for material for her articles, lives in a dark and dismal basement flat off Euston Road. When a sudden loss throws her world into disarray, Kathleen takes refuge in the idea of researching an old court case from the 1850s in her native Ireland, just after the worst of the Hunger, which happens to be based on a real case.

8. The Scream, by Rohinton Mistry
4 Oct 2010
McClelland & Stewart put out a special, hard-back edition of this short story by the author of Such a Long Journey, winner of the Governor General’s Award, and three other books with royalties going to World Literacy of Canada. The story is an old man’s monologue that starts with his being awakened in the night by a scream outside his window.

9. The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa
1 Mar 2010
After a brief interview with his sister-in-law, the housekeeper starts a new assignment, working for a professor who has had problems retaining housekeepers in the past. When she arrives for her first day, he immediately asks her what her shoe size is. Thus begins this quirky and—reluctant as I am to use the word—charming story. This book made me think about how we create relationships, how we can bear to trust each other, and how we stubbornly continue to do so against all obstacles and in spite of all common sense.

10. World War Z—An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks
18 Jan 2010
Okay, yes, zombies. But they are almost beside the point. This is an amazing book, one that sank its claws into me on the first page and didn’t let up until I finished the last. As the subtitle indicates, it is a series of interviews with veterans of the war against the zombies. Absorbing as a story, it is also a terrific example of using voice to differentiate characters.